I think it is probably fair to say that Joel Osteen could have done a better job in responding to Hurricane Harvey. Because of his prosperity preaching and wealthy lifestyle he gets hammered by just about everyone other than his Lakewood Church parishioners and his television audience. When a disaster like Harvey hits Houston, and Osteen fumbles the ball, he is going to get nailed. I am glad to see that he has finally mobilized Lakewood Church.
As Laura Turner writes at BuzzFeed News, a lot of the criticism of Osteen is part of a larger criticism of evangelicals in the Age of Trump. I don’t count Osteen as one of the so-called court evangelicals. As far as I know, he has stayed out of politics. But his prosperity preaching certainly makes him an honorary court evangelical in the minds of most critics. For many, Osteen represents the spirit behind the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump. They care about the Supreme Court and the culture wars, but they won’t open their churches to flood victims.
Here is a taste of Turner’s piece:
The backlash against Lakewood Church, and the resentment fueling it, ties into a larger national narrative around the hypocrisy of politically involved evangelical leaders who helped put Donald Trump in office. American evangelicalism in the last four decades has been an increasingly politicized movement, rooted in many ways in the establishment of the Moral Majority, a political action group whose very name declared its concern with rectitude and character. Yet evangelicals are more often known for what they are against — abortion, same-sex marriage — than what they are for. More and more, prominent evangelicals seem to be folding conservative politics into their belief system.
Evangelical leaders like Dinesh D’Souza and Eric Metaxas have devolved into self-parody under the Trump administration. Metaxas, who wrote a best-selling biography of the theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, now tweets about hosting Sebastian Gorka on his radio show and wrote an op-ed about why Christians must vote for Trump. Dinesh D’Souza was a policy adviser for Ronald Reagan and wrote a well-regarded book on Christian apologetics before he launched his career as a pundit railing against Barack Obama, and eventually spent time in jail for making illegal campaign contributions under other peoples’ names. D’Souza tried to return to relevance with a 2013 infomercial for his friend’s artificial Christmas tree, and just this week was retweeted by Donald Trump when he shared a Washington Post article claiming that left-wing demonstrators were the true source of violence at a Berkeley rally.
Criticism of white evangelicals has reached a fever pitch with the Trump administration, and not without reason. A recent PRRI/Brookings poll asked whether a politician can behave ethically in office even if he has committed immoral acts in his personal life; the results showed that “no group has shifted their position more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants,” who went from 30% affirmation in 2011 to 72% in 2016. This practice of changing the rules in service of political expediency drives others — Christians and non-Christians alike — to censurewhite evangelicals, especially those who espouse virtues like chastity out of one side of their mouths and use the other side to support the policies of a groping, thrice-married opportunist who once claimed he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness.
It is also true that there can be a kind of glee with which some people rush to assume the worst about evangelicals and prosperity gospel Christians. “Joel Osteen gets it from both sides,” says Kate Shellnutt, associate editor at the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today. “Plenty of Christians criticize him for offering what they see as shallow, self-help faith, for not preaching enough on sin. Then non-Christians or former Christians will see him as a prime example of their concerns about the church: that it’s too flashy, money-focused, selfish.”
Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, has observed similar attacks on Osteen and argues that he is misunderstood: “Joel Osteen is not the flashy money-grubber that people imagine when they think of a prosperity preacher,” she says. He is an encouraging pastor, Bowler says, but people want to believe that his enthusiastic persona must be a cover for underlying greed and evil.
A storm as severe as Harvey, with all the pain and desperation it brings, puts any pre-existing criticisms of Osteen and his brand of religion into even sharper relief. Bowler says, “In the face of a natural disaster, the prosperity gospel lacks a language with which to account for problems that cannot be remedied by individual faith.”
Read the rest here.
Of course there is another, more accurate, way to understand evangelicals and Hurricane Harvey. From what I have seen and heard, evangelical churches and ministries have mobilized to bring relief to the suffering and the displaced. Many of these churches do not associate with Osteen’s brand of prosperity Christianity. I am confident that stories will emerge showing evangelical Christians at their best, living out the Gospel in the midst of Harvey. And some of these evangelicals may have even voted for Donald Trump.